The Basics of Permaculture

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Permaculture (as described by the magazine of the same name) is “an innovative framework for creating sustainable ways of living; a practical method for developing ecologically harmonious, efficient and productive systems that can be used by anyone, anywhere”.

Originally derived from the term ‘permanent agriculture’ (or ‘permanent culture’), it is often associated with ways of growing crops that are more sustainable and environmentally friendly. However, as the description above suggests, it is much more holistic than that. Permaculture provides ethics and tools for creating and designing ways of life that are not only sustainable but regenerative, to repair and revitalise our damaged planet. It can apply to how we design our homes, livelihoods, communities, technologies and economies. Perma­culture provides co-operative systems which support living ethically in symbiosis with, and in steward­ship of, the earth.

These principles marry very well with those of veganism, encompassing many of the techniques for vegan organic growing that we have discussed already, such as no-dig methods, green manures, composting, mulching, companion planting and more. Permaculture has partly evolved from observing how nature functions and then developing strategies that work with nature, including systems that give maximum output for minimum input whilst producing no waste. It is increasingly clear that the livestock industry and intensive agriculture are damaging nature more than ever before, so permaculture ties in closely with our vegan ethics and vegan organic growing techniques. As nature has taken billions of years to evolve, we can learn a lot from observing and mimicking how it works with our growing strategies – such as the use of mulches, stacking plants vertically (see ­Forest Gardening later in this chapter) and stacking in time (growing a series of crops in the same space in the same year for maximum efficient use of space).

The Ethics of Permaculture

Earth care 

Living/gardening in a way that leaves no waste or damage, but regenerates the earth (for example, by using the growing techniques discussed in the previous chapter such as no-dig methods, mulching, not using chemicals)

People care 

Nurturing yourself and all other people (for example, by ensuring anything we buy does not involve slavery, child labour or other forms of exploitation).

Fair shares 

Not consuming more than we need and redistributing surplus (for example, giving excess crops to neighbours or food banks).

There are numerous permaculture principles that can be applied to any design exercise. In the context of food growing and planning your garden, the concept of ‘zoning’ can greatly increase the energy efficiency and productivity of a plot, by carefully placing elements according to how frequently you may need to visit them. The zones can be categorised as follows:

Zone 00 


Zone 0 

Your house (pots on the windowsill, sprouting seeds).

Zone 1 

The garden close to the house (herbs, salads, anything that needs daily attention, which could well include a small greenhouse).

Zone 2

Further down the garden (perennials, potatoes, sweet corn, fruit trees/bushes and so on) requiring several visits per week.

Zone 3 

An allotment or area for commercial production requiring visiting once a week or so.

Zone 4 

Managed woodland (logs for fuel or coppicing for poles) requiring several visits per year.

Zone 5 

Wilderness (foraging for wild berries and mushrooms) requiring several visits per year.

The zoning system may seem obvious and simple, but it is so easy to place something in the wrong location, leading to inefficiency or it not being used at all. If some herb plants were at the bottom of the garden they may simply not be used in the kitchen, or if the greenhouse was too far away, you might not bother to check it was well ventilated each day. However long you’ve had your plot, you will benefit from drawing a plan of it on a piece of paper, mapping out the zones as described above, and gradually moving things around to increase efficiency and output and develop your own permaculture garden.

In our current situation we have a few herbs and sprouting seeds on the kitchen windowsill (Zone 0), further herbs, salads and a small greenhouse (for growing tomatoes, peppers, aubergines etc.) within a few metres of the back door (Zone 1) and raised beds for our main crops plus a few fruit trees and bushes at the bottom of the garden (Zone 2). We have a friend who manages a small woodland

a short drive away (Zone 4), and various wild areas where we can collect berries and mushrooms slightly further afield (Zone 5), often combining visits to this zone with other activities.

One key aspect of permaculture is that of observation before action – taking time to observe the natural ‘sectors’ in your plot, recording how energy (sun, water, prevailing winds, frost, pollution, views and so on) flows through the area and might impact the optimum placement of various elements in your design (such as greenhouses, raised beds, compost heaps and ponds). It is often suggested that when you take on a new garden, plot or allotment, you spend the first year simply observing which plants appear, which grow well in certain positions, which areas get the most sun or frost and so on; to get a feel for how the rhythms of the year affect the plot, which areas have microclimates that might suit certain crops or styles of growing and how the sectors change with the seasons. In practice many of us are too eager to get on with sowing seeds and making the plot productive as soon as pos­sible, but we must always stay in observational mode and adjust techniques and positioning of crops and facilities through the years as we learn how the plot works best – naturally. This way we can learn which plants thrive in our particular soil and climate and amend future crop-choice for the maximum output and efficiency.

We have found that growing certain crops in containers is useful in this regard in that we can easily move them to different zones or locations as we determine where they grow best or how easily/often they need to be accessed. They can also be moved over a period of time as these factors change. For example, we grow the tomato variety Tumbling Tom each year as it crops well outdoors and does well in large pots, producing masses of small cherry-sized fruits. We start them off in Zone 0 (kitchen windowsill) sowing the seeds in a heated propagator in March. Once the young plants are 10cm tall they go out to the greenhouse (Zone 1) for April and part of May, then into the large outdoor pots (Zone 2) at the end of the garden, for they will need very little attention as they grow throughout June and July. When they start fruiting in August we move them back to Zone 1 (near the back door) so that they can easily be picked daily for salads and pasta dishes (a quick meal simply made from wholewheat pasta, pesto and a handful of these cherry tomatoes (which burst with flavour in the mouth) is a delight!).

Modern agriculture has led to a decreasing number of crop varieties, chosen for their productivity and profit. Some major agro-corporations have even started taking out patents or trademarks for certain varieties so that it would be illegal for farmers to collect and use their own seeds (thus forcing them to buy new seeds each year). Along the way many old varieties have been lost. Those that have been developed over generations are known as heritage or heirloom varieties, and may have superior qualities such as flavour, colour, hardiness or suitability for particular climates and soils. The more of these varieties we lose, the more we lose biodiversity as well as the joy and health benefits that come from eating many different types of fruit and vegetables. For these reasons there is growing interest in the protection and growing of heritage varieties and the saving of seeds on small scales. The organisation Garden Organic runs a Heritage Seed Library[1] and we discuss seed saving in more detail in the next chapter.


Another useful permaculture tool for running your plot (as well as many other aspects of your life) is known by the acronym GoSADIMET (or SADIM for short) which is illustrated as follows:

Goal setting

Deciding what you want to achieve from your plot (including what you want to harvest, what are your favourite fruits and vegetables).


Observing what is already there: plants, structures, climate, soil, water, wildlife, boundaries, access and utilities. Creating an initial base map. Finding out the wishes of other people sharing your plot (do they have uses in mind other than growing crops, what are their favourite fruits and vegetables).


Analysing your limiting factors (time and financial, for example) and resources (time, people, tools …).


Creating maps of your ideal plot using zones and sectors (as above).


Building to your design in phases (this could be as simple as installing a few raised beds one year, adding a small greenhouse the next and so on).


Managing the plot through the seasons.


Thinking about what went well, what didn’t work, and what can be improved in the future. Keep evolving your ideas.


Making practical adjustments as you learn how your plot works.

Forest Gardening

One of the most sustainable and stable ways of growing food, to be both productive and low maintenance, is to create a forest garden on part of your plot. This is a design to mimic a natural forest, using trees, shrubs and smaller plants, and can be produced even on a small scale in a back garden, replacing the lawn with an attractive, productive area, rich in wildlife and biodiversity.

A forest garden should have a diversity of species, including those that increase fertility (such as nitrogen fixers and lifters) and those that attract natural predators. Using the permaculture principle of stacking, a forest garden maximises the use of the available space by including plants that can flourish on as many different levels as possible.

Canopy trees

Depending on the size of your plot, these could include walnut, sweet chestnut, apples, plums and pears.

Small trees

Planted between the canopy trees, such as almonds, hazel and dwarfing fruit trees.


Often shade tolerant, like berries and currants.


These could be herbs such as sage, mint and thyme as well as plants to increase fertility, such as comfrey.

Ground cover

Creeping plants to create a living mulch, such as clovers and various herbs.


Grape vines and kiwis, for example, which can climb up the larger trees.


Crops such as Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, carrots and beetroots, as well as mushrooms.

A forest garden can be a long-term project, but will result in a beautiful area that is a joy for you and good for wildlife, much more environmentally friendly than a lawn, and requires very little work once established. There are some excellent books on forest gardening should you wish to explore this area in more depth (see Resources).


This is a very brief introduction to a powerful framework for living your life. To find out more we highly recommend taking the Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC), which you can find out about via the Permaculture Association (see Resources). In particular there is an excellent Vegan PDC run by Graham Burnett (Spiralseed) and Nicole Vosper (Empty Cages Design).

More from The Vegan Cook and Gardener

Excerpted with permission from and published by Permanent Publications. Order the book now!

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.